The Fortress

Most people think of it as my home. It was but it was also designed to be the alternate seat of US Government in an emergency.

It was also an impregnable fortress. Other homes in the area were also forts so the entire government could be housed in an emergency. These buildings include the George Divers House which was built for the House of Representatives to stay at. Even the White House itself was a fortress under the facade of being a home. (See page 2 for these other buildings)

First let me take you on a tour of the secrets of Fort Monticello.

There is nothing stranger about Monticello than it's size.

No, those people outside it are not later day munchkins looking for Dorothy. They are regular sized people. However, many visitors begin to wonder if they might be munchkins as they approach the house. Notice that the man touching the pillar is bald and has a beard, so you know for a fact that they aren't children.

Monticello appears to be a single story house but it is a two story house, plus the dome on top.

Appearing as though it was only one story was better than all the other defenses combined. It is a grand optical illusion. This next picture I've made to show how this optical illusion would have worked if Monticello had been attacked.

At any range Monticello appears to be only half the distance that it really is. Thinking that Monticello was only about ten feet high (plus the dome) any enemy gunner firing at Monticello would set the elevation of their gun for half the distance. Every shot they fired would then fall short of the target.


Each window extends up to include the second floor and also functions as a low window for the second floor rooms. It is easy to see on the side of the house where one of those large windows was later made into two windows. American soldiers could fire from the second floor in the prone position and the enemy would think that he was firing from the standing position on the first floor. The enemy would miss every time.




The English were known to use poison so you can probably imagine two English agents with ten pounds of arsenic powder sitting on the bench in the back saying to each other. 'We need to put the poison in the cistern. I wonder where it is? It's supposed to be near here.'

The cistern was actually the square 'post' under that pagoda on the left. The cistern was originally a pedestal for a statue. We had different statues at different times according to whether or not war was threatened. During the War of 1812 a statue of a mounted colonel made of hollow brass was used and it was not one tenth as heavy as it looked. It was very convincing, especially with all the soldiers who automatically would show respect because it was an 'officer' and leave it alone.

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation states:'The purpose of the Dome Room is not revealed in any of Jefferson's surviving papers.'

Well it was a secret. There was no reason to give a false purpose for it. The eight round windows were for the two large ships cannons that were put in there in time of war. Each cannon had a 45 degree field of fire. That meant a 360 degree field of fire. The floor now is covered with a layer of weak wood but under that layer there still should be another two layers, 6-8", of hard wood as strong as any ship's deck. It was to handle the weight of the guns. I can't recall off hand what the top layer was made of. I think oak. It may have been stripped in the last 180 years but I have no way of knowing what has happened in the intervening years.

We used to call it the 'dumb room' instead of the 'dome room' because it just sat there doing nothing which was pretty stupid. Once it is pointed out to you that there is not even any inside stairs you'll agree that makes it an even dumber room. (There are not any stairs because you couldn't move cannons around much or they might fall down the stairs.)

The actual dome itself was thin and held into place by a few simple pegs. It could be lifted off by a dozen men or pushed off the house by three men. That way the men inside wouldn't become deaf when they fired the cannons. Also, there were often four mortars stationed up there that could shoot out through the top.

Each cannon (demicannon?) weighed over 4,000+ pounds and used a 32 pound cannon ball or grape shot with full charges. Later 48 and 64 pound cannons were installed. Those cannons could keep any cannon that the English fielded at the time from ever getting even near enough to shoot a cannon ball to within a mile of Monticello.

Somebody could make me out a liar really fast if they determined the floor to be a standard one inch thick floor. (And I wish they would so that I could dismiss this and do something more fun.) It should be the original floor unless the confederates who took over the house destroyed it (like they probably did to the main stairs, see below) Also, treasure hunters may have thought it had treasure in it since it was thick and they may have taken that floor apart. Thick wood pieces and wood beams were often hollowed out and made into safes. They usually did it from the end of a rough hewn log since a plug could be made to match the wood more easily than the sides which had to match the visible grain of the planed wood.

This was the most ideal location for any fortress. Just ask any officer. The top of a hill with a 360 degree view of the surrounding area which was clear for many miles. You can't get any better than that.






Monticello stairs.

It is said that there are only two narrow stairs at each end of the house. Those were for fire escapes and so was the iron spiral staircase that was mounted on the outside of the back wall which I assume is not there anymore. We had to have numerous emergency staircases. The visitors would sometimes take the occasion of a visit to declare independence from normal teetotal behavior and get smashed. Then fires that normally stayed in fireplaces or in lamps could easily spread to the entire house.

There was at least one staircase in the front room (right) which is now missing. You can take a closer look at it here. I'm sure the stairs must be on some of the early drawings and house plans.

That balcony and the wings which extend out look pretty naked without any stairs and they are pretty useless the way it presently is. What purpose could those wings possibly serve?

A cat would love to sit up there and stare down at visitors but almost anything having to do with a cat is pretty useless. So I guess that conclusively proves my point.

Thomas Jefferson never harbored 'useless' in his life.

The stairs sat on pegs or brackets that were mounted in the wall. Then the stairs could be pulled up on the landing above it in case there was a siege of Monticello and the invading soldiers had made it inside the house. That would isolate the upper levels of the house from the first floor except for the narrow stairs at the ends which had gates at one time and were easily defended in any case. Bombs (grenades) and boiling oil could be dropped on any enemy that had made it inside Monticello.
I am pretty certain that the stairs were similar to these on the left. There was a few steps up, about two feet, along the front wall and then it turned 90 degrees and went up to the landing above (the one with the cat).

The stairs were made on split logs or rough hewn boards that ran lengthwise. This gave rigidity to the stairs.

Since the stairs were probably on pegs it was very easy for some lazy person to have stolen those stairs and use them in another house. They were very sturdy (as you could drag a four pound cannon up them) and possibly they were used in a house somewhere nearby or in Charlottesville that was built in the 1800's. However, for all I know someone (like an invading Confederate soldier) could have used them for firewood.

This is not as ridiculous as it may sound to you. It certainly would not be if you knew the history of the house after I died. It was not only taken over by the Confederacy but it was also abandoned for a while. At another time it was striped. I am not going to go over it all because it is not the point of this paper. However, you can read about it elsewhere if you want to.

The key to finding out if you happen to be the person who has Jefferson's stairs in your Charlottesville house is on the underside of the stairs at about the level a seven year can reach. That is where a name is carved (she may have been a niece). Indelible are both her carved name and the memory of how happy and how very proud she was of her skills as she stood there beaming in her blue dress. However some of us were not nearly as happy as she was about her new found skill. I recall it clearly. I think this tiny incident kind of amazed me that she had gotten at least the first five letters of 'Jefferson' spelled right. For some reason Jefferson is a very difficult name for small children to learn to spell.


The brick used on Monticello were special made and are probably still the hardest brick obtainable. It could stand up to any weapon in use at the time. It could withstand direct hits at point blank range by all cannons that England fielded in North America. The most often used was the 6 pounder and the wall could handle four repeated strikes in the same location or a single hit by 9 pound cannon at point blank range. At 1000 yards nothing the English had in the field, even a 24 pound cannon, could dent or chip the wall.*

Snipers could also be assigned to use the second floor and nobody ever shot at the top of a window in a one story home so the snipers were safe twice over..

Each year the Army Artillery experts and this meant a lot of generals who fought in the Revolutionary War came and tested the entire system and simultaneously trained the militia (and some cadets from West Point). This included setting up and using all the cannons with full charges and cannon balls. Massive improvements in artillery were coming about due to the European wars. Each arriving cannon also had to be fired to determine it's accuracy and range. The Corps of Artillerists and Engineers did the set up and testing. Then as West Point got underway (before and during the War of 1812) both instructors and cadets were trained to use the cannons at Monticello. They were to be the defenders of Monticello. To conceal this secret they used the code name 'Manhattan' or 'Manhattan Fort'. The practice was often done in the winter since snow would muffle the noise and the impacts would usually result in a spray of mud, dirt and snow which could easily be seen.

At first we couldn't find a clear strip of land to shoot at in order to sight in the cannons and determine their ranges. We tried shooting into land that was partially covered with trees but often you could not tell where the cannon balls hit when they went into the trees. (Later after 1800 there was one long field but it had cows in it and even if we didn't hit one of them they all stopped giving milk for a week.)

There had been complaints from the good people in Charlottesville about the noise from the cannon fire. They had a legitimate complaint since cannon fire makes everyone nervous except the Generals. It woke up people who were taking naps and a baby cried once. When they all said that the birds stopped singing I realized that they were all members of the town church.

Maybe it was General (ret) John Stark (the 'fighting parson') who proposed just shooting on Sunday mornings but that was real limiting for us. The church members talked it over and gave us four hours on Sunday mornings which was not nearly enough time. That did help us enlist local men since those who like to shoot cannons were usually those same men that were aching for any excuse to get out of going to church.

It was fine with the church members or as one woman stated with a wry and strange smile 'I certainly don't mind if you kill a few people who should be in church', which meant the 'playboy' widower Thomas Jefferson. I trained the citizens to not only appreciate my poignant and wry sense of humor but I also seem to have taught them how to emasculate me by using the same brand.

The preacher saw immediately that it would solve all attendance problems and with a more captive audience for hours on end it gave him an excuse to pile on more hell, fire and brimstone while we provided the thunderous wrath. Then the church members had a social afterwards for the rest of the four hours. Often we would join them at those socials.

For the cannons we needed a place clear of trees for from 3 -5 miles away from Monticello. George Washington was the gunner in charge. He said 'what about that old road over there'. (The road now known as Garth Road was considered old even 200 years ago.

I said 'Oh no, that's clear on the other side of Charlottesville'. I had endured their wrath once and that was enough. The visiting Generals could go home but I had to live there, so I made it perfectly clear as I looked at Charlottesville. 'We would have to shoot right over the exact center of town and the courthouse (which on Sundays became the church).

George and I just slowly turned to each other with huge grins on our faces. He then bent over to sight the cannon and simply said 'Which building is that whorehouse?' (This had nothing at all to with the church. He always referred to the entire legal establishment with such disrespect. He thought the local court near him was established to take his property away from him. It was! George's political opponents when they got into power rezoned districts or moved the county lines and then quickly built a 'whorehouse' just so they could pack it with their own people every time. This disturbed him greatly and he often made very poor judicial appointments as a result of this unfairness. One of them was John Rutledge who I write about on this page. )

Since the cannons were pointing at them when they went off, the good citizens of Charlottesville, over 2 miles away, sitting in church, got an even louder explosion from Monticello than before. This was followed by a loud wooshing sound as the cannon ball passed overhead.

On the map you can see the road which is now called Garth road on the other side of town running north west and straight out of Charlottesville. For three miles to six miles from Monticello you can clearly see that it was a fairly 'straight shot'. At four miles out we had someone place a bed sheet in a tree by the road to determine the near maximum range for the large cannons. We had three farmers on the look out for cannon balls to make sure they got pushed off the road before people saw them after leaving church.

We always tested each barrel of gunpowder each Sunday. I first tested it when George first opened it. Then George Washington tested independently using a different method. The complicated method involved a column and the displacement of air by the expanding gas which evolved from the burning of a certain amount of gunpowder.

Most people know how the proof of alcohol was determined. If you wet gunpowder with liquor and it burned then it was over 100 proof but many people don't know that this test was also used the other way around, as a simple test for gunpowder. We had lots of bottles with eyedroppers. I had a big range of them. If it took more than 120 proof alcohol to burn the gunpowder then those people only two miles away in the 'courthouse' church would have been in danger. This test was mostly used by armies, right before firing, in the field to make certain the powder wasn't wet.

We also had planned to mount a 54-57 pound cannon in the front room to shoot right out the front door but it was never obtained or needed.

Snipers could also use the large dome holes but they could best use the second floor and also that low railing in front of the dome room (up here on this page). At the time the railing was taller and had a different design. The rail was not like the one there now with lots of spaces. The men could safely shoot through the narrow slots of the old rail which were spaced at least a foot apart.

Monticello had several tunnels that were initially made to be used for bringing in relief if the English (or French, Germans, etc.) surrounded the place. Alternately these tunnels could be used for escape if all else failed. One tunnel went to the hill where a man with a spyglass (telescope) acted as a lookout for any approaching enemy.

This is not the original tower, nor was it the only one. There were several so called 'observation towers' which were place where there were good views so that you could sit and drink tea. Except that they were not located for the views as such. Three were placed in the most strategic observation points possible to be able to see any enemy troop activity and to be able to relay firing orders for the cannons. There was a tunnel that went to it and I think it was under it.

This is one of the tunnels under Monticello and as you can see it is very well constructed. These are identical to those in many U.S. forts at the time. They are not the makeshift type of tunnel which many people would expect to find.

Greased boards were placed on the floor to create a smooth surface to allow the moving of the very heavy cannons (about four tons) with fair ease.

Some of the other tunnels acted as bunkers to store cannon during the revolution. These were to be used on the ground in front of Monticello but they were never needed. There were steel tracks in some of the tunnels for the cannon but they are probably not there any longer. At least one tunnel was later used to go a latrine in the winter time as described here. That was the guest latrine I referred to in 'Trinkets in Monticello' which is on the next page. There are lots of mentions of tunnels on the Thomas Jefferson Foundation website but I'll finish the subject with this: They appear to have located approximately only one tenth of the tunnel system that existed under Monticello 200 years ago.


Page 2

*The English did bring in larger cannons and by 1800 they had a much more powerful cannon, so don't confuse those cannon with the ones that the English used when Monticello was built. However, they never would have gotten those within sight of Monticello



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